U.S. should provide more visas for skilled workers, better prepare its citizens for STEM jobs

Posted Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Immigration has never been an easy issue for the United States despite its touting itself as a nation of immigrants.

There are so many facets to any discussion on immigration, so many different impacts on different places and different individuals and businesses and groups that whatever is said or done will get under someone's skin. Universal agreement may not be possible, but sensible balance is.

A bipartisan group of senators has offered a plan that overlapped the plan President Obama has put forth on a number of questions. All of that togetherness is so rare that I'm not sure what to make of it.

The thing they mostly agreed on is an increase in the number of H-1B visas, a change that would allow high-tech companies to hire more foreign workers. Raising the ceiling on the number of H-1B visas is something Microsoft in particular has championed.

The argument is that there aren't nearly enough talented, homegrown applicants to meet the need for skilled workers with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degrees.

I've known a few talented people with computer expertise who've suffered stretches of unemployment, so I have some empathy with people who say tech companies prefer hiring young talent from abroad to possibly more expensive, older workers here.

I'm certain that is sometimes the case, but it also seems true that there are more jobs than could be filled from within.

There have long been clogs in the pipeline to a STEM degree. I think most people would acknowledge that American K-12 schools don't have as many good science and math teachers as they need, and few have much in the way of computer-science courses.

Math curricula are subject to periodic warfare over teaching methods, disrupting learning. And it is still a struggle to make STEM education accessible to some groups of students, particularly girls and students who are black, Latino or Native American.

There are efforts to address that, including several at the University of Washington, but they aren't enough.

Ed Lazowska, Bill and Melinda Gates chair of computer science and engineering at the UW, told me that right now, our economy is creating great jobs and they are going to other people's kids.

The challenge here is for people to realize we've got to be preparing our citizens for these jobs.

Microsoft, in asking for more visas, said it pays foreign workers the same as American employees, something more than $100,000 a year. The median wage in the United States as of 2010 was $26,364, and the average wage $47,046. In Washington, the average wage for the same year was $49,354, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

Last year, farmers in Central and Eastern Washington bemoaned a shortage of labor, but they were talking about finding people to cut asparagus for $10 or $11 an hour and jobs that would last maybe three months.

Immigration is far from one issue requiring one approach.

There are plenty of Americans who'd like to earn $100,000 a year. In its proposal last year, Microsoft offered a sweetener, a fee of $10,000 that employers would pay for each immigrant hired with the money to be used for STEM education.

For some bizarre reason, the Senate bill would drop that fee to $1,000. That doesn't make sense.

Whatever the folks in Washington agree on should make it easier both to benefit from the value immigrants add and to develop the potential that already exists here.

Jerry Large is a columnist for The Seattle Times. jlarge@seattletimes.com

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